To Pay Attention: Graceful Reminders

Thanks for your patience. The six day passage to Big Bear came and went, as did the 5 day passage to Wrightwood. 200 miles after Idyllwild, I have a better sense of what this trail demands of me.

Mostly, it is attention.

Pay attention. Small things matter greatly. Gecko on a water cache box, Swarthout Canyon.

Walking up a narrow canyon on an overcast day, it began to snow at 5,000 feet elevation. In the West, that’s mid-elevation, and a pretty low snowline in May and below the 35th latitude. Attention is key. Where am I? How much farther to water? Am I alone?

Solitude isn’t critical on the trail. There’s always somebody somewhere, except when the weather hits and many hikers suddenly decide they’d like an extra zero-mile day in town.

Coming up the canyon I mentioned, snow falling on cactus and me, my legs approaching the 17th mile of the day, I knew--just knew--that I would find people up there. I came upon an international gang of hikers huddled around a fire, all cold, wet, tired, and happy to be together in equal measure.

Mission Creek Camp, aka Tent City

Coming upon Wrightwood, having walked at least 20 miles each day and feeling quite excited about this newly discovered strength, I may have let my guard down. We all did.

Mile 220 for me, 370 for most others, we’re feeling like we know what we’re doing. We’re in sunny SoCal, too. Cajon Pass was hot and windy. The Mojave is around the corner…

Freight train through Cajon Pass, 3,000 feet.

But not before the San Gabriel mountains and her 10,000-foot peaks. The one certainty of the PCT is the C-part, Crest. We ride the crest of every mountain range in our path, and will certainly descend into valleys only to ascend to the crest of the next range. It feels maddening to climb a vertical mile and then lose that elevation the next day. But we gain it again, and so it goes. It’s a great gift to gain so much, lose so much.

At 8,000 feet in the San Gabriels, snow and sleat pelted the mountain side and wind threatened something deep within me.

In the middle of white-out conditions on Blue Ridge, I stopped and shoved my bare hands under my sweaty armpits. Hypothermia came to mind. If I sat here to rest, I could fall away into the hillside like in “To Build A Fire.” Perhaps my hiking partner would come along and find me. Maybe no one would. Animal sense kicked in, warmth came to my mind and to my hands, and I shuffled onward, the remaining six miles to the Angeles Crest Highway.

Walking into clouds of snow. Mt San Antonio.

This moment of vulnerability, while toting a soaked tent I desperately needed to dry out in town (and therefore couldn’t sleep in that night), delivers attention to what fragile lives we lead when facing our natural home.

To live the full, natural, graceful life I seek, I must know my limits. I must know the great power I encounter in the wilderness. The power of wind and snow, heat and sand. Become heat to move through it, become cold to find the way home. But pay attention to how deeply you embrace those powers. They can swallow you up.

I promised poetry in every post. The morning I crossed Cajon Pass, Mother’s Day, I recited aloud this poem by Rilke. The sun rose above the desert like the smile of God.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
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